capt gene kelly

You?ve all seen fishing reports about the "best striped bass fishing ever" or "best in years". That?s what you call hyperbole, but don?t believe it. I don?t mean that the reporter is lying, but who the hell can remember and compare the current fishing to that of ten , twenty or more years ago. Ironically you will never hear about the "worst fishing ever".

I?ve tried to recall when the best striper fishing I ever saw was, but have been unable to do so. I?ve been fishing here full time for nearly thirty-five years, and I can remember some great fishing - as well as some lousy fishing, but the best I can offer is a brief history of what it has been like since I?ve been here.

I started out fishing Montauk in the 60?s, at first from the surf, when I rarely caught anything, followed by trailering out a tin boat that my partner and I launched in the surf behind North Bar. We?d get out here on a Friday night, usually around the full moon, put in a night of trying to catch bass, and sometimes succeeding. If we did well, when we got back in after daybreak, we?d head down town get some breakfast and wait in back of Shagwong Restaurant for someone to show up and buy our catch, after which we?d have a morning manhattan and head back to the beach to sleep.

I finally moved out here around 1972 or so, and started to fish full time. I lived at Inlet Marina, which at the time was the pin-hooking headquarters of the East End. Everybody packed out their fish there for shipping to the Fulton Market. At that time there were three types of bass fishermen, charterboats and their clients, those who fished but didn?t catch much, and those who could go out with a reasonable expectation of catching some stripers, and everybody sold their catch. The ones who would catch fish consistently all sold their catch. In those days there were no regulations except for a sixteen inch minimum. A good amount of Montauk?s top charter boat captains started out like this.

Most of the fishing by charterboats as well as others was done by trolling, either with umbrellas or a couple of varieties of bucktails on wire line. Pinhookers would fish the same way, with a lot of night fishing, particularly around the time of the full moon. In those days the only navigation option available was Loran "A", and it did not work at night. Fishing at night was done using shore ranges, and moonless nights would make that difficult.

The first year the herring showed up in force.
Naturally since everyone was selling fish, there was an incentive to catch fish as quickly as possible. Fun was great for charter boats, but it wasn?t a priority with many of the other bass fishermen. Rod and reel was OK, but a handline was faster, and when downriggers came into being, a number of the locals switched over to them, and in fact most of the guys who are fishing commercially now for stripers lean heavily on the good old Penn downrigger.

At some point in the early 70?s chumming with clam bellies came into vogue, and for a while it was one of those overnight striped bass miracles. Anchoring up in shallow water and squeezing bellies with one hand while holding the rod in the other and dropping back a bait would regularly produce boxes upon boxes of school bass. (When discussing a trips results, the number of bass caught was rarely mentioned, but rather the number of boxes that were shipped was the measure of success). In deeper waters a chum pot would be used.

Charterboats wouldn?t use the clam bellies, but the method became so popular, that some of the captains started talking about it causing the downfall of the striped bass population, something that was probably also heard when the umbrella rig came into being.

Fishing throughout this period was pretty good, with a lot of big bass being taken, especially at night with a lot of emphasis placed on live eeling at night. Many gave credit to this "new method" of bass fishing, but that wasn?t the secret. It was the development of Loran "C?, which unlike it?s predecessor worked at night. Before that all the night fishing was done with shore ranges, but ranges work best when you have two of them running perpendicular to each other, and at the tip of an island, the second range just didn?t exist. Trolling with a single range worked because you could run up and down it and find a pack of fish. Drifting up and down tide was a crapshoot. You knew when you crossed a range, but had no idea of where on that range the fish were, nor could you make a second drift over a spot even when you found them. Loran "C" solved that puzzle.

In 1981, Bob Rochetta fishing during a full eclipse of an August moon brought back a 76 pound bass that beat a record that had stood for over fifty years. It was a time of big bass, but then it started dropping off precipitously. Throughout the eighties, bass fishing was tough, resulting in a number of "Thank God for bluefish" remarks.

By 1984, things were getting serious, and the state increased the minimum size limit to 24". The old 16" minimum size had been in effect since 1913, but something had to be done. That increase knocked out what was called the "rat patrol", trolling umbrellas down on the south side for small bass when things were tough for decent sized fish.

In 1986, the you know what hit the fan, when the DEC shut down the striped bass fishery, ostensibly because of PCB?s in the Hudson River stocks. Nobody could posses a striped bass in New York State. In reality it was a good move, but a painful one. It pretty much shut down the fall charter boat business. We tried to stress light tackle catch and release, but catch and eat was the way it had always been, and it was a hard sell. I had clients who fished with me a number of times each year tell me that they felt it was for the best, because the stocks were in such poor shape. But they didn?t book a fall trip.

In the fall of that year the charter boat fleet organized a civil disobedience type demonstration, bringing in illegal stripers for the TV cameras. A number of captains were ticketed, and the city news programs all were on hand. It was a great success, except for one little detail that hadn?t been planned for. In the National League playoffs, the Mets played a sixteen inning game against Houston, in the afternoon, lasting well past the six o?clock news, and nobody watched the news that night.

The following spring, the regulations were relaxed, at least for recreational anglers. The limits before the closure were twenty-four inch minimum size and no bag limit. In 1987 it became a one fish bag limit, with a thirty-three inch minimum size. As the fishery improved from year to year, the size limit was bumped up, eventually reaching thirty-eight inches, staying just ahead of the majority of fish that were around then. The theory behind the new rules was that no fish would be taken before it had been given at least one chance to spawn. And, it worked. In just a few years, we were overloaded with bass.

The fishery continued to improve, and in the fall of 1990, the state even allowed a limited commercial fishery. In order to take any striped bass to be sold, a permit was required, no fish from west of Fire Island Inlet could be sold, and each permit holder was allotted twenty-two fish for the year between twenty-four and twenty-eight inches. I can clearly remember my commercial adventure for that year. I put out two downriggers with umbrella rigs and went down to Shagwong. Within the hour I had made my fortune and was on my way home.

It was around this time that the famed November herring run started, with massive schools of herring, followed close below by big, and I mean big striped bass. The skies would be loaded with gannets and gulls feeding on foot long herring pushed to the surface by forty and fifty pound bass. It really caught us by surprise, but we sure took advantage of it. The first year, most boats fished bunker spoons, with as little as a hundred feet of wire. The tactics were basic. Head for the birds and hang on. I remember taking an old fishing buddy and his friend out. The first pass the friend brought in a thirty-five pound bass, the biggest he ever caught, but his jaw dropped when I unhooked it and threw it back because I felt it was too small. Remember, we were only allowed one fish per person. We just kept catching and releasing all morning. We wound up bringing back a fifty-seven pound fish and another of forty something pounds. We were still rebuilding our customer base, and this was a real shot in the arm. Nothing brings business like great fishing, and a number of my clients, as they started home would simply say to "put us down for the next week, same time".

The following year, live lining the herring became the thing to do. First stop would be just outside the jetties, where Sabiki rigs would be used to load up on the herring. After a half hour or so, with up to a hundred herring in the well, the boats would head down to the Point and start catching bass, big ones.

In ?95, the size limit was dropped to twenty-eight inches, with a bag limit of one fish per person. In a concession to the charter boats, that were required to purchase state permits, their bag limit was upped to two fish per client, and the captains had to provide a little note stating that the person had caught his two fish on a certified charter boat.

Strictly speaking, the striped bass regs were not bag limits, but rather a possession limit, which technically meant that a person was only allowed to posses a single striped bass, meaning that you had to eat yesterday?s bass before you could keep another one. The DEC rigidly enforced the rules, going as far as stopping cars as they went around the circle at the Lighthouse. More than one angler was ticketed for having two days worth of fish in his possession, or because half the guys went home in one car, while the other one had all the fish in a cooler.

The herring run has continued until the present time, but it?s definitely not what it was back in the mid to late nineties, with the majority of the bass following the herring much more likely to range from fifteen to thirty pounds, maximum. However, you could still catch big bass, just not in the fall. The big fish action shifted to mid-summer in the late nineties, when "bunker dunkin" came into play. Talk about "dumb fishing" All you had to do was anchor up at Great Eastern, Shagwong or a number of other hot spots and start throwing over chunks of bunker, some with hooks. Everybody became an expert almost immediately. Wire line trollers paid the price. There is no way to drag a wire line over your favorite spot if there are a dozen boats anchored all around it. This is still a good method to take bass, but it is not what it once was. Few boats do it anymore, and the ones that do rarely produce the numbers of fish that were common ten years or so ago.

One last phase will bring us to the present time - live porgies. In 2003 the porgy population exploded, and a couple of guys started using them to catch bass. However, by the time the secret got out, the porgy season closed. The following year, once porgies became plentiful, live lining became the way to fish. Some charterboats resisted switching over to "the dark side" but eventually they all succumbed. I don?t know that it would have been as popular a method if catching porgies was harder, but the catching was easy. A half hours drift at Shagwong, Culloden or down by the Light was all that was necessary to come up with a couple of dozen prime bass baits, even if some of them were a little little. Late summer and into the fall everybody fished with live bait, at least until the porgy season closed. Then, cheating would have been too obvious. A couple of boats had tried to hold over their porgies from one trip to the next only to be checked out and ticketed by the DEC for shorties. Drifting for bass with the porgies season closed would have been just asking for trouble.

Now you have to wonder what this season will bring. Last year, porgies were not quite as abundant as they were the previous year, so it?s possible, that the livelining will wind down. One thing that I am sure of though is jigging parachutes on wire line will continue to work, just as it has for as long as I have been here.